Three nights before the Patriots took their latest step in search of a sixth Super Bowl title, Troy Brown sat before a large gathering of sales and service reps, sharing a lesson in leadership.
As many in the audience sipped 12-ounce beverages nearing the end of their company retreat on Gillette Stadium’s club level, Brown recalled a moment 16 years earlier when he looked into the eyes of a kid quarterback and saw the competitive soul of a someday, 40-something G.O.A.T.
Brown was 30 at the time, in his ninth season of an improbable 15-year NFL career, waiting with nine other teammates on word from young Tom Brady to go do what others thought impossible in the final 81 seconds of Super Bowl XXXVI.
Up near the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, in the FOX-TV booth, John Madden advised to play for overtime against the Rams. On the field far below, despite starting from their 17-yard line in a 17-17 tie, the Pats decided differently.
“‘Let’s go win this!” Brown remembers Brady saying as he stepped into the huddle.
But less than the resonance of what rolled off Brady’s lips, it was the message written on his face that registers to this day with Brown.
“There was no fear, whatsoever,” Brown said.
And so, with confidence cued by Brady’s conviction, the Patriots covered 53 yards — including 23 on a catch and carry by Brown — en route to the St. Louis 30 and Adam Vinatieri’s game-ending, game-winning field goal.
Sixteen seasons after driving the Pats to that first title, Brady again convened a late-minute huddle with an opportunity for an eighth Super Bowl appearance hanging in the balance. He and his teammates were confronted by a 3rd-and-18 and 10-point deficit, with just under 11 minutes left.
Recently, it was reported that an unidentified team “staffer” had observed in Brady an increasing “fragility” leading to increasing “nervousness.”
Yet here he was, resolute as ever, dropping deep behind the line, gripping the ball in a stitched-up right hand and calmly stepping left to gain a little extra space in a partially collapsing pocket. All in an instant, Brady then diverted the defense, with a subtle glance left, before firing a dart down the middle to Danny Amendola.
Still fearless after all these years.
And there they went, continuing on their 85-yard way to a score. Brady’s next throw, off a flea-flicker, hit Phillip Dorsett, who literally rose to the occasion over linebacker Myles Jack. The closely-defended, well-contested catch occurred on Dorsett’s lone target of the AFC playoffs.
“Everybody knows how tough [Tom] is. Everybody knows that he’s our leader,” Amendola said afterward. “Not only is he the best player in our locker room, but he gets everybody else to play well and step their game up, and that’s why he’s the best.”
Of course, if anyone understands the idea of stepping his game up, it’s Amendola. Essentially, it’s all he’s done in his last four postseasons as a Patriot and heir to Troy Brown’s number 80.
Once an undrafted journeyman trying to stick in Dallas and Philadelphia, before enduring injury and franchise futility in St. Louis, Amendola arrived in New England amid immediate and intense scrutiny. His predecessor, first at Texas Tech and later in Foxborough, Wes Welker, walked out the door to Denver as a free agent. Amendola was widely assumed to be his replacement.
But in his Patriots debut, at Buffalo against a Bills team (like this year’s Jaguars) coached by Doug Marrone, Amendola tore a leg muscle off its bone, darting and diving to a 10-catch, 104-yard afternoon. In the end, his effort helped lead to a come-from-behind victory, settled on a last-second field goal.
Still, it left him hobbled most of the rest of the season, as Julian Edelman emerged as Welker’s stick-moving successor. Four months later, Amendola was shut out in the AFC Championship, only to see Welker and an historically great Broncos’ offense advance to Super Bowl XLVIII. As to be expected where fans are passionate and when lofty expectations are unmet, critics were unkind.
Despite family rooted in the region, Amendola was anything but a favorite adopted son of local sports fans. Even for much of 2014 — five catches through seven weeks, accompanied by injuries once again — he labored and languished.
Eventually, Amendola ignited a spark on special teams. During a reception-less Week 11 win over Detroit, he returned a kickoff 81 yards. Then, as the Pats edged the Jets in the regular-season finale, Danny caught eight passes and accounted for nearly 220 yards as a receiver and returner.
Momentum continued into the postseason, which started with two touchdowns vs. Baltimore keying a remarkable Divisional round rally. Amendola’s third score of those playoffs was his grab in the back, left-of-middle part of the end zone midway through the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XLIX. It drew the Patriots within 24-21 of Seattle. Seven-and-a-half minutes later, following an Edelman TD, Malcom Butler intercepted Russell Wilson to clinch New England’s first crown since Super Bowl XXXIX.
Amendola was also instrumental in capturing the most recent, thanks to yet another history-making Super Bowl comeback. His eight receptions, touchdown and game-tying two-point conversion helped turn “28-3” into a memory preserved on t-shirts and flags and 34-28 into a record-book reality over Atlanta.
What’s more, he did it after accepting a couple of pay cuts the previous two years. Amendola would take another last offseason. True, he was adding income through endorsements and a modeling contract, no less. At the same time he was dating an actress once crowned Miss Universe.
No matter, a willingness to do whatever he needed to do his job as a Patriot, combining grittiness with greatness in football’s biggest games, made Amendola a 5-foot-11, 183-pound embodiment of the organization’s — and its region’s — “everyman” ideals.
And so, unsurprisingly, with neither Edelman nor Rob Gronkowski to turn to on Sunday, Brady turned to the guy whose steely eyes express an equal fearlessness.
Dorsett’s reception pushed the Patriots to Jacksonville’s 23-yard line. Brady-to-Amendola twice, for 14 and 9 yards, pulled them within a field goal. About six minutes later, that same combination, from four yards out, put them ahead by a field goal.
Amendola’s route on the play was similar to one he ran to catch Brady’s 400th career touchdown pass against a very different Jags defense in almost the same sector of the end zone — along the end line, left of the goal post — two years ago. The result was a more spectacular grab, complemented by Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point to make it 24-20.
Rising high, snatching the ball and clutching it in his right arm tight to his body, Amendola landed with his right foot down, turning to tap his left in bounds. He had it all the way.
Following the game, Amendola explained that Brady’s first option was Brandin Cooks, operating underneath to the quarterback’s left on a ‘whip route’ into Jacksonville’s zone coverage. Brady came off Cooks and sought out the receiver who see things the same way he does.
“Danny’s position by nature, playing in there as a slot receiver, you work around a lot of different body types and you see a lot of different coverage schemes,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on Monday. “There’s some maneuvering in there, there’s some settling in zones.
“You have to have your eyes ahead of you and see what’s in front of you, and if there’s nothing there, maybe you keep going, like he did on the touchdown previous. So, there’s a lot of little things that go into that, and you have to make split-second decisions and react the same way that the quarterback would see it, too.”
Amendola did, recording his 18th reception of this postseason and 49th, including six scores, in his dozen playoff games overall representing New England.
“I think Danny’s just shown the ability over and over and over again in these critical situations that he’s going to do the right thing,” McDaniels added. “The quarterback has tremendous faith and trust in him.
“You have great confidence that he’s going to do the right thing and he’s going to make the play that you need him to make, and he’s proven it over and over again that he’ll do that. So, he’s been clutch in those moments before and he certainly was again last night.”
Nine years after Amendola toiled briefly on the Eagles’ practice squad and 13 years after Brady earned his third ring by beating the Birds, Philadelphia is their next foe in Super Bowl LII.
The NFC Champions made it to Minneapolis by routing Minnesota. And theirs is a play-making defense that turned around last Sunday’s conference title game with a pick six forced by the pass rush of ex-Patriot Chris Long.
Like last week, as well as their previous Super Bowls together, Philly figures to force Brady and Amendola to face another one of those moments in a need of a drive to go win it, when they and their teammates have to look each other in the eyes — faithfully and fearlessly.
— By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub